Chattanooga 2020 Review: THE WANTING MARE, A Fantastical and Haunting Fable
Some research on trauma has suggested that it can pass in DNA, from generation to generation; trauma so severe that literally gets written in our genetic coding, which we then pass on to our children. Perhaps it fades or becomes mutated over time, but something is still there, something that becomes part of our brain chemistry, that leaves its traces for years to come. How would that affect our existence, especially if the cause of that trauma was lost in history?
The Wanting Mare weaves a strange and fantastical tale where such questions, and others, lurk like a low fog around the ankles of those walking its path. Nicholas Ashe Bateman's feature debut is a strange tale moving between fantasy and futurism, between a fable and a poem; its beauty lies in part in the difficulty to define it, allowing instead us to spend time in this world that both envelopes us and keeps us at bay.
On the world of Anmaere (is it some distant planet? Some alternate reality or dimension from Earth?), in possibly a future many centuries after a global disaster, there lies an isolated city of Whithren. Bathed in perpetual heat, its main source of income is the capture and sale of wild horses; a ship from far across the water comes once a year to take the horses to the perpetually cold continent of Levithen. Tickets for residents to leave Whithren are a most precious commodity, one that many would kill for.
Even farther from Whithren, on a wild, rocky shore, lies a house. In that house, a woman is about to die after giving birth to a daughter. She and the baby are part of a line of women who have the same dream every night, a dream of a long ago past where the world was on fire. Without her mother to guide her in reliving this trauma, Moira, now an adult, desperately wants to leave. Moira spends her days wandering by the sea, and her nights at an abandoned building on the outskirts of the city, where she sings along to an old 8-track and dreams of the cold. Here, she meets Lawrence, a man who will change the course of her life.
The city, and the world, is shown in brief moments, looming larger-than-life over characters who have little power to change the fate of their existences. Having lost her mother at birth, Moira has no guidance for her recurring dreams, knowing only that she somehow exists outside of Whithren for a reason; Lawrence seems a part of its darker side, which he tries to abandon, as he and Moira take solace in each other. For Moira, Lawrence is a brief respite before her hoped-for escape; for Lawrence, Moira is the escape. But in the end neither gets what they want.
As the story moves forward 34 years for the second act, Bateman builds on these layers. Here we meet another woman, Eirah; unlike Moira, Eirah seems content in the heat, keeping secret a horse (worth a fortune if anyone catches it), and developing something of a romance with Hadeon, who, like Lawrence, is involved in some shady dealings. Eirah's trauma stems from an abandonment, memories that mark her skin like her tattoos, and a sense that she also does not quite belong in this world.
The film was shot almost entirely in a storage space, with literally hundreds of VFX shots added in later to create the world of Whithren. This gives it that weird gold tinge often seen in movies with heavy effects; normally this is a detriment, but in The Wanting Mare, it not only works, but it enhances the mystical quality. Bateman and his Director of Photography, David A. Ross, give us a world through which we can believe in the magic that might still lurk in the shadows, and characters who skirt around those edges. We see the great mound behind which lies the possibility of escape, tinted with this golden light or pricelessness that Moira and the others can never obtain. Certainly it's stunning and haunting to look at; but more than that, it allows us to see it as a fantastical tale, rather than an imitation of some past that never was.
The city is only seen in its alleys, its abandoned buildings, it lost hopes that still lure in those few who wish to find some sort of salvation. Neither do we see the gathering of these valuable horses (something that might have been interesting, though technically difficult and expensive). These edges, these things seen and experienced by the characters who live in this liminal space, give it both its fantastical and futuristic tone; so much of the world and its knowledge, its life and being, have been lost, and perhaps those who exist in this liminality, who carry the trauma in their DNA, as the only ones who can remember, the only ones who can step outside and see this golden light and feel its call and longing. And for the few who make it across the sea - well, that's something to see in the film itself, but you will feel the cold winds on your skin as you watch.
What happens when stories, and histories, are lost to time, those that are necessary to sustain an understanding? Each of these characters - Moira, Eirah, Lawrence, Hadeon - seem to be searching for theirs. The film does not tell its story in any sort of linear, or frequently even narratively coherent, manner: rather, like the world in which it is set, the cracks between the rocks, the ocean against which the city waits, phrases and thoughts come on the winds and sprays of water, like a fable with half-truths. Try to understand too much and you'll lose perspective; try to understand too little and you'll wander too far. Its meaning lies like an object in the corner of your eye, understood only when you partially see it.
I hope sometime soon we'll get to see this film in a dark theatre on a big screen, as it is one in which not only do I want to see this world as big as possible, the enveloping darkness means I could proverbial exist in it. The Wanting Mare is both sparse and luscious, kind and harsh, filled with longing, anger, and love. It is a poetic fable wrapped in a strange fantastical futurism, one which escapes easy definition yet envelopes the viewer in a cold and brilliant light.
The Wanting Mare is screening at Chattanooga Film Festival, May 22nd - May 24th. The festival is open to residents of the USA and badges can be purchased on the festival website.